Feature Articles

May Issue 2002

Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC, Presents The Memory Of Water - Installations by International Artists

...the act of imagination is bound up with memory. You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was...and a rush of imagination is our "flooding."
- Toni Morrison

In Charleston, SC, part of Spoleto Festival USA's three-year Evoking History program, the visual arts exhibition The Memory of Water, co-curated by Mary Jane Jacob and Tumelo Mosaka, will evoke the cosmopolitan character of this colonial capital and its maritime legacy by pointing to Charleston's global reach in the past, illuminating its contemporary cultural landscape and connections with the world, and inspiring visions for the future. The group of leading international artists engaged to enlarge the view of this city through individual installations are: Yinka Shonibare (Nigeria), Nari Ward (Jamaica), J. Morgan Puett (United States), Marc Latamie (Martinique), Kim Sooja (South Korea), and Kcho (Cuba). Their large-scale projects will be on view, free of charge, from noon to 6pm, Thursdays through Sundays, May 3 - 19, and daily from May 24 - June 9, 2002.

The Memory of Water presents newly commissioned works by six artists from "outside" Charleston whose work resonates with the multiple meanings located within this place and with its unique relationship to water as a peninsular city strategically sited on the Atlantic Ocean, with a natural harbor protected by sea islands. In very different ways, each installation touches on this relationship through an aspect of Charleston's commerce, trade, or military might, and the cultures that converge along its shores.

Evoking History in 2002 also investigates the nature of Charleston's social ecology through a network of different but interdependent identities. "Black and white, master and slave, city and country, outsider and insider, North and South, local and global.., art and life - these concepts are often seen in opposition to one another, yet each is defined by the other and all are mutually dependent," explains curator Mary Jane Jacob. "Our project takes the form of a public program, itself built around two opposing but deeply connected realms: water and land."

Thus, a complementary public program, The Memory of Land, plays an equal part in this year's Evoking History program. For this aspect of the program, Jacob and Mosaka are joined by Sarah Carrington, Curator for Public Programs. The Memory of Land features The Borough, a house-based installation where histories of displaced persons from the African-American dockside district of Ansonborough are gathered with the aim of sparking interactive face-to-face and on-line feedback. Exchanging Histories, a community speakers' series, will bring Charlestonians from different walks of life to the public stage to enlarge the meaning of the artists' installations. Key to the intent of this year's Evoking History is the Youth Fellows Program, which brings 15 area-high school students into the critique of history through an intensive training program and subsequent employment during the festival as discussion leaders at installation sites. These students will form a link to the 2003 installment of Evoking History, in which artists will join students in further probing the nexus of race, education, cultural institutions, and natural and social ecologies.

Spoleto Festival USA's Evoking History program looks at the contested sites of history in Charleston and the crucial issues challenging communities in the region today. In 2001, its first year, Evoking History resulted in three major art-and-community projects led by: 1) theater director Ping Chong and playwright Talvin Wilks who created Secret Histories, an original play in which five Charleston women powerfully told their personal stories and encounters with racism; 2) writer Neill Bogan, who in collaboration with nine Charleston artists, writers, educators, and an architect undertook a six-month exploration of the nature of monuments leading to Rehearsing The Past, a series of community gatherings, installations and exhibition; and 3) artist Lonnie Graham's The Heritage Garden Project, an educational garden based on African sources at the Wilmot J. Fraser Elementary School, and the first public and now permanent designation of the unmarked African-American cemetery at Drayton Hall plantation.

Evoking History in 2001 was designed to listen to local communities and connect them to other constituencies near and far, identifying shared questions of concern and linking these subjects to the intellectual discourse around contemporary art making. As cultural critic Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett wrote of this program in year one: Evoking History has succeeded in raising the bar for what public art can be and do when it attends closely to local situations and issues of burning concern to those who live there, encourages wide-ranging conversations and collaborations, supports an extended process, takes risks, and makes critical reflection a priority." This is the continuing goal of Evoking History this year and next.

The Installations

Spacewalk by Vinka Shonibare

British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare translates the complex cultural interchange of colonial commerce into powerful works that reveal and challenge our expectations of black identity. In Spacewalk, he re-envisions the American pioneer spirit by outfitting modern-day colonizers of space in his trademark batik cloth, which is Indonesian in origin, but through colonial passage, has become identified as African cloth. He sees his installation, which will be sited in a former church, at 554 Rutledge Avenue, as an icon of universalism and globalization.

Shonibare is interested in analyzing the construction of identity - particularly black identity - through the complex cultural interchange of colonial commerce. He was born in London in 1962 and grew up in Nigeria before returning to England, where he studied at the Goldsmiths College, University of London. Shonibare has become known internationally through his participation in group shows and biennials around the world. This year his work was the subject of a retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Fortress by Nari Ward

Artist Nari Ward collects huge quantities of common objects and materials to build massive sculptural works, deploying the accumulated memories within this material stuff to recall profound stories of everyday occurrence. For The Memory of Water, he will create Fortress, an enormous recycled-glass greenhouse that will house a symbolically gestating group of palmettos. The first fort on Sullivan's Island was built of the palmetto's sturdy trunks; today a symbol of defense and resistance, this tree is commemorated on the state flag and the insignia of The Citadel. An internal irrigation system "waters" these concrete and iron trees, causing the sculptures to rust and thus accelerating their aging and sense of history, while their structural form evokes the riveted construction of the retrieved confederate submarine, "The Hunley". Etched on the glass of the greenhouse wall is text commenting on the neighborhood of Ansonborough that once existed on the empty field where Ward's structure now stands.

Born in Jamaica in 1963, Ward immigrated to the US at the age of 12. He made his home in Harlem, where he continues to live and work. His work has been shown at the Whitney Biennial, Deitch Projects, Harlem Firehouse Space in New York City; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and at Le Magasin, Centre National d'Art Contemporain, Grenoble, France, among other locations.

Cottage Industry by J. Morgan Puett

Renowned for her unique artistic practice that negotiates the disparate territories of fashion, architecture and fine art, Georgia-born artist J. Morgan Puett creates art as a working system in response to the issues of commerce, history and labor. For Cottage Industry, she will design a multi-class garment based on museum sources, local architectural details of housing and everyday textile garments, piecing together missing social histories and recording them in a pattern for popular consumption Workers will create this garment daily in a "performative" workshop exploring the commercial and artistic interplay of fabric and fabrication: from designing to dyeing to sewing to marketing.

At once an installation and business, this work is sited in a Charleston single-style house at the corner of Calhoun and East Bay Streets. The family that owns this house traces its ties back to slaves at Drayton Hall; after the Civil War the family lived in "The Borough," the now-erased African-American section of Ansonborough. With a deep local rootedness of imagery, this project also transcends place and time, evoking stories of gentrification and progress, and textiles as an industrial site of exploitation.

Puett's major ongoing project for more than a decade has taken the form of small businesses in SoHo and Tribeca in New York City, employing a framework in which she creates aspects that would otherwise be called: installation, sculpture, costume, sound, collaboration, community-based art, or other terms, which collectively reflect the hybridity of her processes. Her art has recently been shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and she is currently working on a collaborative project with Mark Dion for the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

Caravella by Marc Latamie

Working with raw materials from his birthplace of Martinique - cotton, sugar, cocoa, rum, coffee - Latamie draws attention to the historical trafficking of food products, the cultural associations that foods accrue along commercial routes, and the role they play in shaping our identity. For Caravella, he evokes the image of a prominent neighborhood grocery he often frequented while growing up on the island called "La Caravelle" (referencing the ships of Columbus) where the world's goods were in easy reach. His installation - a shop positioned near the port at Concord and Calhoun Streets - will be filled with products from Martinique and Charleston, displaying the intertwined histories of these two active colonial centers.

In keeping with his interest in foodstuffs and trade and their connections to Martinique and Charleston, Latamie has invited Martinican Chef Jean-Charles Bredas to present a special menu at Middleton Place during the festival. For Latamie, the idea to bring the flavor of Martinique into a center of Charleston's memory evoked by this plantation is an extension of the trading process that he tries to crystallize in his work. Bredas's visit to Charleston is sponsored by the Agence Regional de Développement du Tourisme de la Martinique.

Based in New York, Latamie has exhibited in international locations specific to the subject with which he is concerned, such as Spain and the Canary Islands in 1998; Cuba and Johannesburg for the biennials there in 1997 and the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1996.

Planted Names and A Lighthouse Woman by Kim Sooja

Sooja's own story, growing up along South Korea's Demilitarized Zone and forced to move from place to place, finds resonance in The Middle Passage - both stories of displacement. Her two companion projects for The Memory of Water will commemorate those who lived outside freedom. At Drayton Hall, the oldest preserved plantation house in America open to the public and a Georgian Palladian architectural gem, Sooja's Planted Names finds a home; carpets whose surfaces bear the recorded names of slaves will transform each of the four rooms surrounding the great hall on the first floor in meditations on the past.

In a companion work, A Lighthouse Woman, Sooja will use light, color and sound to transform an abandoned lighthouse into a memorial. When Charleston was first settled in 1670, the need for safe passage into its harbor was necessary. Located on Morris Island famous for the Civil War battle of the African-American 54th Massachusetts Regiment, this 1876 lighthouse has been ravaged by the forces of nature and man over time, and now stands solitary in the waters of Charleston harbor, a testament to a time when maritime commerce was the lifeblood of the Lowcountry.

Sooja's work will be a tribute to the enduring relationship of light and the sea. Members of Save The Light, Inc., a nonprofit organization whose mission is to save and preserve the Morris Island Lighthouse, consider the lighthouse the "soul of the community" and are in a literal race against time to stabilize the base of the lighthouse against further erosion. Save The Light, Inc. is offering an opportunity for wine, hors d'oeuvres and a boat trip to see the inaugural lighting of the lighthouse as part of A Lighthouse Woman on May 10 aboard The Spirit of Charleston. Tickets are $100 and the boat will leave from the Aquarium Wharf at 7pm. For info call (843) 556-0353.

Sooja's work has been featured in exhibitions worldwide, from Africa to Asia, recognized for its universal theme of Diaspora. Her 2001 solo exhibition seen at MOMA P.S. 1 in New York, is currently touring in Europe. Sooja's project for this year's Whitney Biennial is sited at the Central Park Zoo.

Middle Passage by Kcho

Cuban artist Kcho investigates the idea of emigration in his own society that is, in part, a real nightmare of passage and, in part, political struggle in Cuban society. In works like Middle Passage, he creates massive sculptures of maritime refuse, creating boats of passage and memory. In Charleston, boats have played a major role: transporting goods and people; providing sustenance and passage from homeland to bondage; serving as warships and weapons. The multifarious meanings of boats, vehicles of pleasure and pain, are layered into Kcho's collaged form referencing individual and cultural histories as well as our collective voyage through time. Middle Passage will be located near Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island - a key national heritage site - poignantly the location where the ancestors of about 40% of all African-Americans arrived in the New World.

Kcho graduated from the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticas (National School of Visual Arts) in Havana, Cuba in 1990. He quickly captured the attention of the international art world and at the age of twenty-four, he exhibited in the Bienal de La Habana (1994). Later that year he appeared in the biennials of Sao Paulo, Istanbul, Johannesburg, and Kwanju in Korea, and is currently in the Sao Paulo Bienal.

The Public Programs

Exchanging Histories is a community speakers' series, in which locals will share their life experiences in response to the artists' installations in The Memory of Water exhibition, revealing the deeper meanings and social histories of Charleston and the Lowcountry. All Exchanging Histories dialogues will be held at the installation sites on Fridays and Saturdays beginning May 3.

The Borough, sited in a typical small white single house - one of only two surviving structures from the former African-American waterfront neighborhood of Ansonborough (popularly called "The Borough") - will be transformed into a community meeting place filled with family histories of past residents. Visitors will be invited to drop-in and listen to taped recollections, hear discussions and participate in other events from noon to 6pm, May 23 - 26, May 30 - June 2 and June 6 - 9.

Spoleto Festival USA's new educational initiative, the 2002 Youth Fellows Program, will introduce 15 Charleston-area juniors and seniors in public high school to cultural arts and education professions. Participating students will meet with artists and educators from area-heritage sites over the course of their training, during which they will be encouraged to examine the arts and culture professions as realms of inquiry and revision, while strengthening their connection to place and their own heritage.

For the Youth Fellows Program, Spoleto Festival USA will work in partnership with the Charleston County School District, its Schools-to-Careers program, and the Housing Authority of the City of Charleston to identify qualified, interested and promising students. Furthermore, in implementing its curriculum, it will benefit from collaboration with the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, Drayton Hall/National Historic Trust, Historic Charleston Foundation, Middleton Place and the National Park Service.

Evoking History is sponsored by AT&T, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, LEF Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Arts International, Inc., the Animating Democracy Initiative, a program of Americans for the Arts, funded by the Ford Foundation, Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation, British Council, and Le Conseiller Culturel, Ambassade de France aux Etats-Unis.

A guide to the exhibition is available and a map of the exhibition locations can be found in the Spoleto Festival USA single ticket brochure. The Borough, the community meeting place for the exhibition at 35 1/2 Calhoun Street, will be a repository for materials documenting the history of Ansonborough, as well as a central location to get more information about The Memory of Water and its community program The Memory of Land.

There is no shuttle planned; however, three of the six installations are within walking distance of one another along Calhoun Street.

For further information contact Marie Lawson Jacinto at 843/720-1137 and e-mail at (mlawson@spoletousa.org) or Jennifer McPerson at 843/720-1136 and e-mail at (jmcpherson@spoletousa.org) and at (www.spoletousa.org).

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